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John Walmsley, Ninth Bishop of Sierra Leone

A Memoir for His Friends

Arranged by E.G. Walmsley, M.A.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923.

Chapter II. Early Days in the Ministry

NATURALLY, with his Evangelical upbringing, John Walmsley turned to Wycliffe Hall for the special preparation which he needed before entering the ministry. At the time when he finished his five years' course at Brasenose, a new chapter was being opened in the life of the Hall. Canon Girdlestone had resigned the Principate, and the Rev. F. J. Chavasse (afterwards Bishop of Liverpool), who had been known to more than one generation of Oxford men as Rector of St. Peter-le-Bailey, had been appointed to succeed him. Walmsley was actually one of the first students who assembled at the Hall under the new Principal. Bishop Chavasse writes:

"It was in October 1884 that I first met John Walmsley. He had come up from Hereford School as a Somerset Scholar of Brasenose College, Oxford. I was then working as Rector of St. Peter-le-Bailey, and his Vicar had written asking me to call upon him. He was at that time very much what he remained to the end of his life--tall and thin, with a very slight stoop, remarkably long legs, and a bright, open face which attracted strangers, and was the index of his guileless, sunny, and attractive character. He came from a godly home, and was the son of many prayers. He threw in his lot at once with a small band of earnest men who met every Saturday night for prayer at St. Aldate's Rectory, and to hear an address from Canon Christopher, and who frequented a Greek Testament Reading held in New Inn Hall Street on Sunday evening.

"In 1889 he joined Wycliffe Hall, and was one of the nineteen men who first rallied round me when I succeeded Canon Girdlestone as Principal. Among his contemporaries were Dr. Chapman, the present Bishop of Colchester; the Rev. W. A. C. Fremantle, of Balliol, who died in the prime of his manhood as a missionary in India; and the Rev. H. H. Gibbon, Fellow of Balliol, well known for his long and successful work in the University.

"To the end John Walmsley maintained the heart of a boy, but his character matured in a remarkable way during his five years at Oxford. His lovable and sociable nature made him many friends. Full of humour and intensely human, nothing ever seemed to affect the serenity of his temper or his real enjoyment of life--"The spiritual side of his character greatly deepened as time went on. Foremost in good works, he commended his religion by his naturalness and sincerity. A very rapid reader, he accumulated a rich store of knowledge of which he made good use in after-years. Physically strong and a great walker, his powers of endurance were remarkable. He seemed to be able to accomplish without effort what many others can only attain by long and patient toil. When it was rumoured that he was about to make his first attempt to cycle, and had selected a secluded road apart from the profane crowd for the venture, practically the whole of Wycliffe Hall, learning his secret, gathered curiously and expectantly to see the fun. To the amused amazement of all present, he threw one of his long legs over the machine, and rode off as if he had been born a cyclist. In his first curacy in South Devon it is recorded that he raced and defeated the coach in a long journey of some miles over an exceedingly hilly road. And friends who went with him on walking tours in England and Switzerland returned home with a heightened respect for his remarkable powers of endurance."

In the latter part of his time at Oxford, Walmsley had held one of the Philpott Studentships, which are awarded to members of the University with the stipulation that they serve in the Diocese of Exeter, or in that of Truro, for two years after their ordination. With his zeal for humanity and his readiness for hard work, one might have expected him to seek a curacy in one of the larger towns of Devonshire or Cornwall. But very wisely he decided to begin his ministry in a country parish, where ideals were not in danger of being smothered by organisation, and where it would be possible for a pastor to be in personal touch with every member of his flock. He accepted a title from the Rev. Conrad W. C. Finzel, Vicar of Stokenham; and on Trinity Sunday, 1890, he was ordained Deacon by Dr. Bickersteth, Bishop of Exeter.

The parish of Stokenham is a very extensive one; and at that time it was more remote from the world than it is to-day. The Kingsbridge branch railway had not yet been constructed, and the nearest station was at Kingswear, twelve miles away. The parish consists of three villages--Stokenham, Chivelstone, and Sherford. Walmsley's work lay chiefly in Chivelstone, which included the fishing-hamlets of Hallsands and Prawle. He preached his first sermon in Chivelstone Church on June 8th, 1890; and it is noteworthy that he preached for the first time both as a Priest and as a Bishop in the same church.

Life in such a parish was full of interest, and sometimes of tragic interest. Walmsley was there at the time of the terrible blizzard of March gth, 1891, and he buried in Chivelstone Churchyard a number of men who were shipwrecked on the Devonshire coast. It need hardly be said that he distinguished himself as a walker, and stories are still told in the parish of his feats of endurance and speed. On one occasion he walked from Totnes to his lodgings, a distance of sixteen miles, and found a message that a woman at Hallsands was dying and wished to see him. He went on at once to Hallsands without stopping to take any food; and after his visit, with only a cup of tea by way of refreshment, he took a meeting in a cottage. Though he was in the parish only for two years, he made a lasting impression; and after a lapse of more than thirty years the name of John Walmsley is still a household word in many of the Chivelstone homes.

From Devonshire Walmsley moved to the suburbs of London, and joined the staff of the Rev. W. Smyly, Vicar of St. John's, Penge. There he made a number of friends, and he thoroughly appreciated the fresh opportunities which such a parish provided. But his stay at Penge was a very short one, for in 1893 he was asked to return to Oxford as Vice-Principal of Wycliffe Hall. Of his work in that position Bishop Chavasse writes:

"He was an ideal man for the work. He won the affection and regard of a large number of men who are now holding important positions in the Church at home and abroad. He was not only the teacher, but the friend and companion of the students. In the morning and evening they sat at his feet as he lectured or 'coached' them. In the afternoon he shared their games, their discussions, their dip in the river, or their long walks. He helped to deepen the spirit of brotherhood which ensured unity, and, almost unconsciously to himself and to them, created the spiritual atmosphere which makes for Christian manliness, and a natural and unaffected religious life.

"His strong common sense, his openness of mind, his freedom from prejudice, his unfailing sympathy, and his wide reading united to strong convictions and genuine and unobtrusive piety, made him a powerful factor in the spiritual history of many a future clergyman."

Walmsley's activities during this period were by no means confined to his tutorial work at Wycliffe Hall. Instinctively he sought an outlet for his pastoral zeal; and he found it as part-time curate of Holy Trinity Church, under the Rev. G. C. Bowring, now Vicar of Thame. Holy Trinity lies in the obscure streets to the west of St. Aldate's; it had in those days the reputation of being the most difficult of the many difficult parishes which lie in the parts of Oxford ignored by visitors. The Vicar acted also as Chaplain of Oxford Jail; and, in assisting him with work amongst the prisoners, Walmsley was able to develop that power of dealing sympathetically with men of every type with which he was so richly endowed. Mr. Bowring pays a grateful tribute to his former colleague:

"A man brimful of sympathy and love, and possessed of a great fund of humour--which, however, never overstepped the mark--and animated by a wholehearted love of souls, he proved an ideal colleague. It was no marvel that he soon won the hearts of all, whether staff or prisoners. The Great Day alone will reveal the blessed fruit which has been produced by his homely talks in the Prison Chapel, or in the quiet conversations, heart to heart, with the men in their several cells. He was always cheery, with a hopeful word, and must by God's help have raised hope afresh in poor souls who had felt that for them life must continue to be a hopeless failure. An amusing story was told by himself which just proved the natural and brotherly attitude he took up towards the prisoners, so that they must often have entirely forgotten that they were talking to a parson. A prisoner was telling him how much his asthma had improved since he had come to prison, owing to the fact that not only his cell but also the prison corridors were warmed, and therefore the whole place was of the same temperature throughout. On Mr. Walmsley informing the man that he too suffered from asthma, the man replied quite simply, 'You ought to come in here, sir.'

"During the same time that he was assisting at the prison he also gave liberally of the time he could spare from Wycliffe Hall to the very poor parish of Holy Trinity. The same qualities of love and humour served him in these surroundings quite as well as in the prison work. He possessed a great store of anecdotes, which his retentive memory had seized upon and held; and these made him a most congenial companion among all, but especially among young people. His knowledge of nature was another equipment which helped him in his intercourse with young folks. But after all, none of them would have helped him much, had it not been for that Christlike sympathy which led him always to remember those in whose company he was, and to do all he could for them. Hence, though full of honest and harmless fun, he was at the same time a greatly valued visitor to the sick; and many a sick and languishing one was led by his ministrations to look straight to his Saviour and Friend."

An interesting sequel to the story of John Walmsley's work among the prisoners may be mentioned here. Some years later, a man whom he did not know got off a cart in a street in Oxford, and told him that he had been in the prison at the time when he was assisting the chaplain, and that the whole current of his life had been changed by the way in which he had heard the prayers read at the chapel services.

After four years in Oxford, Walmsley resolved to give himself entirely to parochial work. In this decision he was influenced to some extent by domestic considerations. His father had died in 1895, and he felt that it would be right for him to make a new home for his mother and sisters. There was no anxious and weary waiting in his case for the offer of a living. His reputation was already great, and he had a large circle of friends. Eventually he decided to accept the invitation to become Vicar of Normanton, a growing parish on the outskirts of Derby; and he went into residence there in March 1898, when just thirty-one years old.

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